Lifting of suspension by FIFA — Will Pakistan be able to stop criminal acts in football? [Daily Times]

Lifting of suspension by FIFA — Will Pakistan be able to stop criminal acts in football? [Daily Times]

by Muhammad Ali

LAHORE: FIFA, the governing body of world football, on Thursday last lifted its suspension on the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), imposed for over “illegal and hostile takeover” occupation of the PFF Headquarters and “undue third-party interference” in April 2021. The suspension meant Pakistan did not receive any funds from FIFA and it was barred from official competitions while development projects in the country were also be put on hold. “The decision to lift suspension was taken after FIFA received confirmation that the Normalisation Committee of the PFF has regained full control of the PFF’s premises and was in a position to manage its finances,” FIFA said in a statement.

At the same time it warned that Pakistan could be suspended again as a result of “any undue interference in its affairs or action that could hinder the fulfilment of the mandate of the Normalisation Committee.” June 30, 2021 was the deadline for the Normalisation Committee to compete its “tasks, which include fresh elections” but FIFA said that because that was “now no longer realistic” its mandate was extended until “June 30, 2023 at the latest.”

While other modalities will take time to complete, this immediate relief for Pakistan football will mean that the national team can now take part in Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and FIFA competitions. Pakistan’s national teams have been bereft of international action due to the crisis in the PFF. Pakistan’s men’s team last played in 2019, women’s team hasn’t played for long too. It is difficult to predict about fitness and skills of the players. The PFF Normalisation Committee will have to start rebuilding process for both men and women teams.

FIFA’s decision of lifting ban from Pakistan has been welcomed and praised by all and sundry in the country. But the big question which still remains to be answered: will the Pakistan government be able to stop interference in the PFF affairs and prevent those sports officials who are giving a bad name to the country through their illegal and criminal acts?

It is pertinent to mention that on 27th March 2021 (Saturday), PFF Headquarters was attacked and taken over by an illegal group led by Syed Ashfaq Hussain Shah, a former President of the PFF. FIFA-appointed PFF Normalisation Committee Chairman Haroon Malik was forced to flee the premises as the PFF staff was physically harassed and held hostage for quite some time before the Ashfaq-led group gained control of the PFF Headquarters.

No doubt it was a criminal act, bringing shame to Pakistan football and the country. FIFA had termed the takeover illegal and issued an ultimatum that the Normalisation Committee should be handed over the PFF control by March 31, 2021 otherwise Pakistan could be suspended from its membership. The Ashfaq group had ignored the deadline and had announced to continue working from the PFF Headquarters.

Ashfaq was named PFF President after 2018 elections were held on the instructions of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. But FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation had refused to recognise him as the elected President, ruling the Supreme Court’s move as “third-party interference” in running of the national football body. During that time, Pakistan was also suspended for a six-month period from October 2017 to March 2018 for a court appointed Administrator taking over the PFF Headquarters from then PFF President Faisal Saleh Hayat.

In 2019, FIFA installed the Normalisation Committee — initially headed by Humza Khan — to strengthen the football structure in Pakistan, aiming to achieve a functioning administration by conducting transparent elections. After Humza’s resignation in December 2020, FIFA named Haroon as Chairman of the Normalisation Committee. In 2021, tensions had been brewing between the group led by Ashfaq and the Normalisation Committee over delay in holding elections. In 2015, Pakistan was also banned by FIFA due to third-party interference.

It is very unfortunate that Pakistan sports are always in the news for all the wrong reasons. Attacking and storming national sports federations’ headquarters, and taking illegal charge, is not new in Pakistan’s sports history. The first such unprecedented incident took place in Lahore on 3rd September 2013 when a goon squad of nearly two dozen people, some of them carrying firearms, stormed on the Pakistan Olympic Association’s (POA) Headquarters in Lahore and stiff-armed its way into the offices and illegally occupied the POA record and Headquarters. The Pakistan government pressure was visible as the police station concerned refused to register a criminal case against the culprits.

The Pakistan Olympic Movement remained under a siege for almost three years — 2012 to 2015 — as a handful of disgruntled and mischievous sports elements with the help of the Pakistan Sports Board (PSB), Inter Provincial Coordination (IPC) Ministry and some Federal government officials left no stone unturned to destroy the very fabric of the sports in the country and invite the wrath of the International Olympic Committee by openly and shamelessly violating the Olympic Charter.

Over the years, Pakistan sports have gone to the dogs. And football is no exception. Lack of availability of proper facilities and infrastructure, inadequate role of sports federations and lack of support from the government has badly affected Pakistan’s graph in sports. Perhaps the biggest reason for the extraordinary decline in sports in Pakistan is a lack of discipline, infighting among officials, funding and vision.

Governments all over the world keep sports, education and discipline as their top priority, build infrastructure, hold talent development programmes for players and promote medical sciences in sports to compete the world of sports. But in Pakistan it is totally opposite because sports are not our priority.

It is also very unfortunate that football, like other Pakistan sports, over the years, has become politicised and nepotistic. In the national sphere and the sporting arena the root of our dilemma is the notorious system of patronage and imposed cronies, to the exclusion of merit and professionalism. Under the powerful patron’s benevolent gaze, the pick and choose appointees can survive scandals and failures that would crush an ordinary mortal.

These are times when one fails to figure out what is keeping Pakistan football alive. In other countries, people running the sports affairs contribute by taking professional decisions and by executing them with competence rather than on the basis of personal preference and bias. But, frankly, we are not such a nation. In Pakistan most things defy logic.

Pakistan football is in a mess due to unlawful interference in the affairs of the national federation. It is high time the Pakistan government, which is completely oblivious to the state of sports in the country, take strong and concrete steps the stop the rot in Pakistan football, which is exhibiting total lack of discipline and professionalism and damaging repute of the country around the globe.

Published in Daily Times, 4 July 2022